ORDINARY DAYS at BoHo Theatre, Review – Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary


An “extraordinary” thing happened while watching the Chicago premiere of the deeply engaging, thought-provoking and ultimately fascinating new musical Ordinary Days at BoHo, I found myself tearing up… Not once, but twice during the show’s final two numbers. It’s been a while since I have been so genuinely touched by a musical as I was during this beautifully effective little show. Ordinary Days is without a doubt one of the best musicals I’ve seen in Chicago in years, far surpassing every big-budget tour I’ve seen play downtown.


Courtney Jones (Claire), Nick Graffagna (Warren), Hannah Dawe (Deb), Demetruis Spidle (Jason)


This softly poignant modestly sized musical has a surprising expansiveness in its scope and feel. That clashing sense of feeling alone amongst a vast city like New York contributes to the sense of anxiety facing the four young adults in our story who feel pressures building looking out over an uncertain future while also losing themselves in the past. They are lost in a sea of people inside an urban jungle, a speck on a canvas. Yet there’s a beauty underneath their “ordinary” challenges as they come to understand the connections they share with each other.


Nick Graffagna (Warren)


First we meet Warren (Nick Graffagna) an endeavoring hopeful young artist looking to find a place where he can belong in the city, though he admits that “the city tends to make me feel invisible”. At the moment he works for an established, and recently incarcerated, conceptual artist who Warren cat-sits for at his penthouse (purchased via trust fund). Far more embarrassing is the fact that the boss is trying to rehabilitate his image by having Warren hand out fliers highlighting random positive “artistic quotes” to strangers on street corners – an activity that only increases Warren’s sense of isolation.


Though his days are spent with constant rejection, Warren has dealt with it all by building up that all-too American defense mechanism, hiding his frustrations behind a cheerful plastered smile. That sense of alienation has lead Warren to also putting value in the discarded material items that he’s collected throughout the city, such as old photographs and buttons, holding onto the belief that one day he’ll discover something of true artistic value that will give meaning to his life. He is an “optimistic idealist” at heart.


Hannah Dawe (Deb)


Also idealistic, but pessimistically so, is Deb (Hannah Dawe), a sharp witted sour young woman who feels that she’s had enough bad luck in life (at one point she describes looking for work, only to find the only place hiring was Applebee’s). Deb comes from a “suburb of a suburb” where she literally lived on a “dead-end street”, but also finds New York too stifling for her tastes.


Deb is also looking for purpose in her life. She dreams of validation through materialistic accoutrements rather than scholarship for her “big picture” in life, so she started grad school and is in the process of writing a dissertation on Virginia Woolf…. that is until she realizes in horror that she accidentally left her notebook containing her entire thesis on a subway train.


Warren unexpectedly finds the notebook and, believing that this is his purpose, e-mails Deb to meet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art so he can return it. The scene where they eventually do meet up is probably one of the funniest encounters of the show. Here we see a contradiction of colliding personalities: two complete opposites who find themselves bound together through an ordinary event - returning a lost item. Deb agrees to go for coffee with Warren, but only after asking a pointed question, “You’re gay, right?”


Courtney Jones (Claire) and Demetruis Spidle (Jason)


Paralleling the budding friendship between Warren and Deb are a couple in their mid-30s, Jason (Demetruis Spidle) and Claire (Courtney Jones). Having spent a year commuting back and forth between each other’s apartments they have decided to move in together, but that upcoming move is causing them to grow even more distant from each other. Both are holding onto baggage in a way.


In an effort to rebuild their deflating relationship they decide to take a magazine’s advice on “The Top 10 Things to Do in New York”. This also leads them to explore the Met the same afternoon as Deb and Warren… only instead of spending time together they find themselves alone in separate wings of the museum. Claire stands before a painting transfixed by the idea that an X-Ray can reveal a whole new painting hidden underneath. Meanwhile Jason reveals his distaste for the abstract singing, “Why should I care for what isn’t there?”


They both are able to notice beautiful reflections in things, but their tastes are different. Later on the way to a party their heated exchanges over what wine to bring comes to a boil as the taxi stalls, they walk and it suddenly starts raining. Jason relishes the moment and Claire gets ever more irritated until he abruptly proposes which sets Claire off on a panic attack and leads Jason to pack his bags back up. That is, until they see something rather ordinary that changes their lives forever.


Hannah Dawe (Deb) and Nick Graffagna (Warren)


This is a generational piece of theatre. For Warren and Deb it’s a story about coming into a world in their early twenties and finding life is not as exciting or easy as they believed it would be. On the reverse side, Jason and Claire are showing strains of living in the city for over 15 years. They might be slightly older, but their longings and sense of wonder are the same as the younger “couple”. All four characters are flawed, but in different ways that seem to complement each other’s insecurities.


The two couples have only brief passerby exchanges the entire show. They never interact, but their storylines are intrinsically interlaced, especially towards the end of the show when Warren commits an act out of frustration that proves to have far-reaching influence on Jason and Claire. Warren and Deb will never know it though. Part of the appeal of Ordinary Days is…. well it’s “ordinariness”…. which as it turns out is anything except ordinary. It’s a reminder that everyone has an interesting life story and that the ordinary things we do in our daily lives can inadvertently touch others in ways we may never know. It’s a beautiful message that in itself is worth reflecting on.


Demetruis Spidle (Jason)


The book, music and lyrics are by the up-and-coming composer Adam Gwon. Gwon is one of musical theatre’s most promising young writers who has proven he’s willing to take daring risks with his material. Just over two years ago Gwon’s audacious new show, Cloudlands, a chamber musical about a teenager’s suicide, premiered in California and stirred up controversy over its dark subject matter.


While Ordinary Days does briefly broach another controversial incident, it mostly plays it safe in this musical (this show being the first he ever wrote). Its main focus is on crafting a modest (even if subtextually complex) story about finding the “extraordinary” in the “ordinary” in everyday life. The show is told almost entirely through 19 songs with only brief moments of spoken dialogue.


The songs, while lacking melodic originality, are nevertheless intriguing and often compelling. There’s a gentle sophistication to Gwon’s music that is really admirable for such a young composer. They’re not memorable songs and one often gets the sense that the score goes in circles. Perhaps this is all intentional though, since the characters themselves feel like they’re not going anywhere in life - Claire even sings at one point how the taxis are “going in constant circulation, without a destination”.


It’s hard not to appreciate Gwon’s gifted ability to musicalize “ordinary” everyday events like misplacing something important, packing up household belongings, or even ordering a cup of coffee at Starbucks in a way that is both specific and highly entertaining. This is where most new theatre composers have trouble. It’s easy to write songs about big emotions, but smaller everyday things take a more detailed skill.


Nick Graffagna (Warren) and Hannah Dawe (Deb)


There’s a wonderful message inherent in Ordinary Days - that if we take a closer look at “ordinary” everyday events we may well find deeper meaning hidden underneath. Or as Warren puts it, “Things aren’t beautiful all on their own. ‘Beautiful’ comes from reflection.” And although this point isn’t brought up until the very last song if you take a closer look at Gwon’s dense lyrics you can see the nuances of this theme permeating throughout this entire show: Claire comments on the beauty of the city’s silhouette against the sky in Central Park. Jason describes in detail all of his “favorite places” though he has yet to actually visit them in real life. And Warren observes the subtle changes in Manhattan’s urban landscape as seen from the deck of his boss’s high-rise penthouse.


Another theme covered throughout Ordinary Days is that of alienation, especially in the context of living in a massive urban jungle like New York City. Large cities have a way of making people feel small. People get lost in crowds and passed by hundreds of times without getting acknowledged.


The challenge with doing Ordinary Days in Chicago is translating that distinct crowded New York vibe to a Midwestern audience who may have never been to the Big Apple themselves. This is important because in many ways New York City could easily be a fifth character in Ordinary Days. And for all the back-and-forth animosity between Chicago and New York, there really is a different feel between the two cities. After all, New York has nearly six million more people than Chicago does.


Luckily in BoHo’s production director Jason Fleece seems to have put more of a stronger emphasis on the human interactions rather than on the stress of big city life. Directing it this way mostly succeeds in transcending the show’s setting to a basic level – understanding how we connect with each other.


Hannah Dawe (Deb) and Nick Graffagna (Warren)


The four talented actors are excellent in Fleece’s production. Nick Graffagna gave Warren the perfect amount of bubbliness and inner frustration to be immensely appealing, not to mention Mr. Graffagna’s vocals were very impressive. That uncompromising honesty in Mr. Graffagna’s Warren contrasts amusingly against Hannah Dawe’s eccentric pessimism with her often deadpan-style of humor as Deb. Ms. Dawe nailed all of her comic beats and her character’s soft transition throughout the show felt realistic.


Demetruis Spindle gave a heartwarming performance as Jason, a man whose unconditional love for Claire is his main driving force throughout the musical. He’s most enjoyable to watch when he’s playing off of Ms. Jones’s Claire, blind to her problems but feeling helpless at the same time.


Courtney Jones (Claire)


And I can’t say enough great things about the all-around incredibly talented Courtney Jones. This stunning actress took this production to a whole other level entirely with her outstanding choices as Claire.  The highly specific homework Ms. Jones did on Claire kept all of her scenes fascinating to watch. Her spine-tingling vocals were downright gorgeous to listen to. And perhaps most importantly, this actress gave us a searing vulnerability that was extremely moving. Ms. Jones’s performance is worth the price of admission in and of itself.


Of course, it also helps that Ms. Jones’s character is given by far the show’s most haunting and emotional number of the entire show: “I’ll Be Here”, which touches upon a tragic event in Claire’s past. It’s a risky song that could easily come off overly sentimental were it not handled with such gentle care and raw honesty that Ms. Jones appropriately gave this song. This was one of those great moments in musical theatre that was so beautifully executed it had the entire house in tears on the night I attended.


Ordinary Days is a small-scale chamber musical which consists of only projections, a simple set, four actors, and a piano (Ivana Atkins is the accompanist and she also wonderfully musically directed this piece). In many ways this small scale show couldn’t be more perfectly suited for BoHo Theatre with its intimate confined theatre space at the Heartland Studios - a space which at the most seats about 35 people.


Courtney Jones (Claire) and Demetruis Spidle (Jason)


The show often does come dangerously close to sappy sentimentality (I get the sense that Gwon knows this since there’s even a song called, “Sort-of Fairy Tale”). What keeps it from falling completely into mushy bathos is not only this incredibly talented cast who brought it down to a level of reality in a way that was relatable, but also by the skillful direction of Jason Fleece who appropriately kept things simple in this production and as a result we stay focused on both the story and Gwon’s magnificent songs instead of being distracted by unnecessary staging or larger than needed designs. I also had to take note of the quick-paced scene changes. It had that distinctly fast-paced urban feel that was spot-on for this show.


Patrick Ham’s set which consists of white painted apartment doors and brick walls on the side give the claustrophobic sense of urban clutter, where neighbors are literally right next door and yet remain closed-off at the same time. The projection designs by Anthony Churchill were a nice touch that really helped add visuals to this piece that made the show seem larger in scope than it actually is.


Courtney Jones (Claire)


I only had a few small issues in my notes and they were extremely picky. The first was that Elizabeth Wislar could’ve ingrained the conflicting personalities of the characters into her costume designs a bit more. For instance it would’ve made more sense for Deb to start out in grey colors and have Warren in brighter colors to give us a nice contrast between the two. Then as the two characters got to know each other more Deb could’ve incorporated brighter colors into her wardrobe to reflect her evolving worldview. That was just a missed opportunity.


The second note I had was that it’s not clear when the characters are talking to us directly in the audience or when they’re just expressing inner frustrations aloud without literally singing them to us. Warren and Claire seem to be singing directly to us each time, but Deb and Jason seem to be singing their innermost thoughts just in general without directly acknowledging us.


Also, it didn’t quite make sense for Warren to go out into the house in the beginning number to hand out his fliers to us in the audience. Firstly, the audience isn’t used like this for the rest of this production so there’s no need to start the show that way. And second, it plays against Warren’s feeling of isolation to be handing them out to us without any objections. These are very minor nit-picky complaints though, especially in comparison to how remarkable this production is overall.


Bottom Line: Ordinary Days is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. One thing I couldn’t help but reflect on throughout Ordinary Days, and why I was so fascinated by it, is that there’s an ambitiously sincere heart pulsating deep within this show. It’s something that is very rare to find in new musicals. This show was so absorbing that 80 minutes felt more like 30 minutes. Another sign that its worth seeing, when the show was over the audience sat there in stunned silent reflection for a brief moment before applauding. I wish all musicals were as well executed and beautiful as this one was. This wonderful show deserves a longer run than 4 weeks, but at the very least it most definitely deserves a full house. Go see it!



Running Time: 80 minutes, no intermission

Location: Heartland Studios, 7016 N. Glenwood Ave, Chicago IL 60626 (about a block from the Morse Red Line Station in Rogers Park)

Runs through: March 15, 2015

Curtain Times: Thursdays - Saturdays – 8 PM, Sundays – 2 PM

Tickets: $20 (discounts available for students and seniors) and can be purchased online (see link above) or by calling the Box Office at (866) 811-4111.

Parking Info: Parking is difficult in the area so both BoHo and Lifeline offer a free remote shuttle service to/from the theatre. Park in the lot on the northeast corner of Morse and Ravenswood labeled "Lifeline Theatre Parking" (about six blocks from the theatre) and catch the Lifeline Theatre Shuttle Van directly to the theatre.

The shuttle service starts its run 45 minutes prior to the show (that’s 7:15 for evening performances, 1:15 for Sunday matinees), and will complete rounds 5 minutes before show time. After the show, the shuttle will be safely returning all our patrons to the lot for their drive home.


Music and Lyrics by Adam Gwon, Directed by Jason A. Fleece, Music Direction & Accompaniment by Ilana Atkins

Cast includes: Hannah Dawe (Deb), Nick Graffagna (Warren), Courtney Jones (Claire), Demetruis Spidle (Jason) 

Photo CreditsMark Campbell

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